Unshackled and free, wearing his own clothes for the first time in 13 years, Mark Woodworth emerged from a county jail Friday afternoon into a sea of smiling faces and a boisterous cheer.
About 100 family members and friends, some who had waited for hours, came to greet the 38-year-old man who had spent all but 14 months behind bars since 1993, when he was still a teenager.
Saying he felt overwhelmed, Woodworth wore a huge grin as he thanked them for their support.
“It’s a blessing,” he said. “It’s an awesome feeling.”
Like many who have spent an extended time in prison, his first thoughts tended to the culinary.
“I’m going to try to get something good to eat,” he said before departing with family members for the short drive to his parents’ farm just outside Chillicothe.
And while Friday was all about a festive homecoming, he was also returning to the scene of the crime that led to his incarceration.
Woodworth was 16 in November 1990 when his neighbor across the road, Cathy Robertson, was shot and killed while asleep in her bed. Her husband, Lyndel Robertson, was wounded but survived.
After a lengthy investigation, Woodworth was charged in 1993 with murder and assault. A jury convicted him in 1995, but that conviction was overturned on appeal. Tried for a second time in 1999, he was convicted again and sentenced to life in prison.
But last month, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned that conviction as well, ruling that Woodworth had not received a fair trial.
And now, twice convicted and twice freed, Woodworth is facing the prospect of a third trial. His release Friday came after the judge handling the case set a $50,000 bond that his family and friends quickly posted.
While Woodworth has wide support in Chillicothe, not everyone in town celebrated Friday.
Friends and supporters of the Robertson family say they are convinced that Woodworth is guilty, and they are focused on seeing him convicted at a third trial.
“He’s not a hometown hero,” said the Robertsons’ daughter, Rhonda Oesch, who was 15 when her mother died. “He still has very serious charges pending against him.”
Oesch said it’s difficult to see people celebrating while she and the rest of the family still live with the loss of their mother every day.
“We’re trying to do what’s right for Mom and her memory,” Oesch said.
As he left jail Friday, Woodworth was accompanied by his attorney, Bob Ramsey, who has worked on the case for 11 years.
“I’ve never had a day like this,” said Ramsey, who had driven from the St. Louis area. “Seeing him be free is a pretty moving experience.”
Ramsey said a new trial will involve new evidence not available to the two juries that previously convicted Woodworth.
That evidence will include some information that the Supreme Court found in its January ruling had been withheld from his attorneys before trial.
Ramsey said he also intends to file motions before trial that will “challenge the integrity” of some of the evidence used by prosecutors in those previous trials.
Woodworth’s father and Lyndel Robertson were longtime business partners in a farming operation and lived across the road from each other.
Immediately after the shooting, while still in the hospital, Lyndel Robertson told friends and police that he believed the shooter was the former boyfriend of his daughter. But investigators determined that the young man had an alibi.
Ramsey said Friday that newer evidence casts doubt on that alibi.
Key evidence against Woodworth included a firearms expert’s testimony that a gun owned by Woodworth’s father matched a bullet fragment surgically removed from Lyndel Robertson’s body.
Lawyers from the Missouri attorney general’s office, which intends to retry Woodworth on the murder and assault charges, have maintained throughout the appeals process that the defense can question the other suspect’s alibi, but they can’t place the murder weapon in his hand
Ramsey, however, maintains that there are problems with how investigators handled that firearms evidence.
The gun and bullet evidence was taken to a lab in England for examination after local examiners could not make a definitive match. The private investigator who took the evidence to England was working for Lyndel Robertson, according to previous testimony.
But trial evidence was not the big topic Friday in Chillicothe.
Friends holding “Welcome Home Mark” signs and sporting “I believe in Mark Woodworth” T-shirts thronged the sidewalk and street in front of the Livingston County Jail.
“I’m just elated for Mark and for his family,” said Carmen Allnutt. “It’s been so long in coming.”
Her sister, Vicky Simpson, said they believe in Woodworth’s innocence.
“He needs to know he’s never been forgotten,” Simpson said.
And perhaps the happiest person in town was Jackie Woodworth. Before her son left the jail, she and other family members got to visit privately with him.
“He gave me a big hug and said, ‘I love you,’ ” she said.
Jackie Woodworth, who has kept her son’s room the way he left it, delivered slacks and a blue shirt Friday for her son to wear. Like other family members, she said the community’s support sustained her through the years.
“And now they’re part of our happy reunion,” she said.